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Snakes on a wane

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Daedalus Howell/Index-Tribune

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I’ve had snakes on the brain. While researching St. Patty’s-themed notions, everything I read was trying to convince me that St. Patrick single-handedly drove the snakes from Ireland. He didn’t. Patrick drove out paganism, which scholars say the snakes symbolized. Since there aren’t any pagans or snakes in Ireland, it looks good for Pat. Of course, there never were any native snakes on the isle, apart from perhaps the so-called slow-worm, which isn’t a snake so much as a legless lizard. The slow-worm apparently didn’t represent pagans – just lame reptiles – so it got to stay. Sláinte!

According to my research, the only time a snake and an Irishman crossed paths was when Ireland’s own Bram Stoker, of Dracula fame, published “The Lair of the White Worm” in 1911. I first became familiar with the work in a rarely seen film adaptation, which I saw with my pal Jimmy Schow at Petaluma’s Plaza Theatre in 1988.

In a nutshell: When Scottish archaeologist Angus Flint (pre-“Dr. Who” Peter Capaldi) excavates a large reptilian skull in the ruins of a convent, he unwittingly draws the wrath of the mysterious Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe), who not only reveals herself to be a murdering seductress but the sole cheerleader for a snake-worshipping cult that seeks to raise the D’Ampton Worm, a legendary paleolithic serpent, from the depths of the earth. The snake was thought to have been slayed by ancestors of Lord James D’Ampton (an impossibly young and twee Hugh Grant) but together, with a pair of virginal sisters, Angus and James set upon destroying the worm before Lady Sylvia can release it. And probably mate with it.

The film was directed by none other than Ken Russell, whose growing oeuvre included, among dozens of other titles, the rock opera “Tommy,” sci-fi freak fest “Altered States” and “Gothic,” a movie mash note to Byron and the Shelleys.

Jimmy and I didn’t realize at the time that one man was responsible for all these films, which were required viewing in post-punk Petaluma of the ’80s. In fact, we’d only seen “Gothic” the year before because Julian Sands, our hero from A “Room With a View” (who famously smooched our perma-crush Helena Bonham Carter), played Percy Bysshe Shelley.

I wouldn’t read up on Shelley until college, and by then it was too late – Shelley would always be Sands, and Sands, who had since moved on to a dreadful supernatural franchise, would always be “Warlock.” Hence, Shelley = Warlock. All the resources of SF State couldn’t change this annoying association for me, so I finally decided to just change my major.

I recently streamed “The Lair of the White Worm” from some (illegal?) site and found that upon the silver anniversary of its release, it still holds up. Albeit, it’s far campier than I was able to appreciate at the time – I took its cartoonish sexuality (which was entirely intentional on the part of the filmmaker) at face value. And why wouldn’t I, having witnessed the vampish Donohoe seduce a boy scout who snake-charmed her with a harmonica (sales of mouth harps subsequently spiked down the street at Tall Toad Music).

Naturally, I fell in love with Donohoe’s Lady Sylvia. In keeping with his burgeoning car fetishism, Jimmy fell in love with her 1966 Jaguar XKE. The car was “cast,” if you will, for what we can pretend was its serpentine coach design, not to mention the fact that it was white. Jimmy, however, thought Russell had missed an opportunity – that the car should have been an Alfa Romeo since the company’s logo features the Biscione, a.k.a, the Vipera, a heraldic image depicting a large serpent swallowing a boy.

I cannot recall which Alfa he suggested to replace the Jag (Spider, Giulietta?) but Jimmy was adamant that it should not have been a Jaguar, even one as beautiful as that year’s XKE. We disagreed and argued, as always, until he got bored and went home.

Jimmy persisted in his love of cars until his death in a rally race accident 20 years ago this March. I suppose this is why it isn’t odd that I should be thinking about him and this business about serpents and Alfa Romeos near St. Patrick’s Day. You see, while Googling Alpha hood ornaments to see if, after 25 years, maybe Jimmy was right and Ken Russell should’ve taken advantage of the Biscione, I learned that Alfa Romeo has another emblem. It’s been used on their racecars since the early 1920s, the so-called “Quadrifoglio,” which is a four-leaf clover.

I’m not one for sentimental synchronicities, nor do I deny that search engine algorithms can be serendipity-machines if you sprinkle enough fairy dust. But I do like it when one stumbles upon, if not meaning, a sense of metaphysical coherence to random recollections of a lost friend. Perhaps finding a four-leaf clover at the end of one’s reverie is the snake eating its own tale. I prefer to think that I’ve just been lucky.

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Daedalus Howell presses his luck at DHowell.com.